How Free Work Helps You Land Your First High-Paying Ghostwriting Client

Nicolas Cole
June 18, 2024

The biggest barrier to getting your foot in the door with lucrative, high-paying clients:

Working For Free.

Doing free work is something I (Cole) preach all the time to every kind of writer, from the new to the experienced. It’s a massively underrated way of building trust with clients and accelerating your skills as a ghostwriter. In fact, to this day, I still do free work from time to time.

But so many writers avoid doing “Free Work”. When I suggest it, I come up against loads of resistance. Here’s a quick story to explain why (and how to fix this faulty thinking).

In 2017, a few months into my ghostwriting career, I went back to my alma mater: Columbia College Chicago.

I was visiting an old teacher of mine, and he asked if I’d be willing to speak to one of his classes. He had been following the success of my writing online, and wanted me to share some of my “lessons learned” since graduating.

My teacher opened the discussion by asking:

“Cole, if there is one piece of advice you would give the students here on how to find a job as a writer out of college, what would you tell them?”

At this point, I was earning $20,000 per month as a ghostwriter, and in a very short amount of time had learned a lot about what people with money—the ones who run companies and create jobs in our society—value in the people they hire. “Work for free,” I said. I let the words hang—and the silence in the room was deafening.

A few awkward seconds later, my teacher cleared his throat and stumbled back into the conversation:

“I think what Cole is trying to say is… don’t be afraid to take on new projects and charge a reasonable rate.”

I shook my head. “Nope. I’m saying work for free.”

And, almost all at once, all the students started speaking over each other:

  • “How are we supposed to pay rent?”
  • “How are we supposed to earn a living?”
  • “How are we supposed to get paid for our time?”

And this perfectly sums up the response I get every time I talk about this.

When I tell writers to “Work For Free”, I get a ton of pushback.


Because society has lied to us.

The vast majority of people spend their entire lives thinking they are owed a paycheck. They think, by attending college and getting a degree, they are owed a job. They think that when they “spend time working,” someone owes them compensation. They think that success, and getting all the things they want and desire in life, is a direct reflection of how “hard they work.”

And this isn’t true.

You don’t get paid for how hard you work, but for the value you deliver.

It’s not about effort. It’s about outcomes.

And once you internalize this, you’ll start to open up so many opportunities for yourself as a writer.

Here are 3 reasons why “Working For Free” helps you get your foot in the door of high-paying clients and allows you to build the skills to generate outcomes for people:

Reason 1: “Working For Free” reduces your risk and accelerates your skills.

The bottleneck on your earning potential isn’t your effort.

Instead, the bottleneck comes down to two factors:

  1. Your skill
  2. Your ability to produce valuable outcomes for whoever is hiring you

To improve both of these, you need hours of practice and feedback.

When you charge someone, even if you’re charging $7 per hour, you are setting a financial expectation—and if you are objectively unskilled at the service you are providing, you are going to fail and they are going to fire you.

Whereas if you DON’T charge anything, and you make the trade clear from the beginning—”I want to improve my skills, so I won’t charge you unless you absolutely love what we create together”—then you are removing your single greatest barrier to skill acquisition.

You give up your $7 per hour in the short-term for massive upside in the long-term.

Reason 2: “Working For Free” makes it easy for people who aren’t interested to give you a chance.

I am not exaggerating when I say that “Free Work” has led to millions of dollars of opportunities for me.

  • “Free Work” is how I got my foot in the door with new clients
  • “Free Work” is how I scaled my ghostwriting agency to millions of dollars in revenue
  • “Free Work” is how I have become friends with some of the most well-connected entrepreneurs, executives, and investors in the world

When you put a price on something, people have to think extra hard about whether or not they want to buy what you’re selling.

But if you say, “Look, I believe this is going to help you so much, I’ll do the first one for free—just so you can see what I’m talking about,” and you over-deliver, you just traded a few “free” hours for limitless upside.

I’ve had clients that were so skeptical of working together, people who insisted ghostwriting would never work for them because “nobody could capture their voice,” who I knew I could deliver for—if they would just give me the chance. So, I did the first piece for free. I proved I was the right person for the job.

And, almost immediately, they went from being hesitant of working together to asking me to help them with everything (and paying me whatever I asked for).

Reason 3: “Working For Free” is really just a marketing cost—except with more upside potential.

Every form of marketing takes time.

  • It takes time to create content
  • It takes time to do cold outreach
  • It takes time to build an audience

So what is “Free Work?” really?

It’s just a little bit of time spent on marketing.

Except the difference is that “Free Work” for someone you know is semi-interested in what you have to offer has a much higher likelihood of converting into a paid client than running a random Facebook ad or sending out a dozen cold outreach emails.

Here’s the bottom line:

Once you’ve done “Free Work” for a client, one of two things is going to happen:

  1. You realize where your skills are falling short. This is a good thing! Go away and inhale all the information you need and put in the reps to fill this gap.
  2. You can upsell your client and/or get work from their network. If you’ve delivered for your client, you can then do the next project paid. And, if you’ve really impressed them, they’ll recommend you to their network.

Either way, you win.

One final point: I’m not saying you have to do “Free Work” forever. Simply use it as a way to get your foot in the door with clients you want to work with and improve your skills. Eventually, you will get to a level where you won’t need to work for free or, if you do, you can pick and choose when to do it in order to get something back in return other than money.

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